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10 ways to support holistic heart health

picture of a heart running on the treadmill with the words "healthy heart for body and soul. ten ways to support holistic heart health" February is Heart Health Month. Your heart is integral to your overall wellness, and vice versa. Learn more about 10 holistic heart health tips.

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Heart disease has long been the No. 1 cause of death among adults in the United States. Research has shown that current and former service members are at greater risk for heart disease and heart attack than the civilian population as well.

WHAT ARE THE RISKS OF HEART DISEASE?

Coronary heart disease, or when the arteries that supply blood to the heart narrow or become blocked, is the most common type of heart disease. The loss of blood flow to the heart can lead to a heart attack.

WHERE DOES HEART DISEASE COME FROM?

Some risk factors for heart disease are genetic—including your sex, family history, and race or ethnicity—and some lifestyle-based, including stress, smoking, diet, exercise, and sleep habits. While you can’t change your genetics, the choices you make as part of living a healthy lifestyle keep can keep your heart healthy.

HEAR FROM THE EXPERTS

Below are 10 Total Force Fitness heart health suggestions from the medical experts at the Human Performance Resources by CHAMP, part of at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. Their team of scientists, specialists, and support staff translate research into evidence-based resources to help Warfighters and their families achieve total fitness and optimize performance.

1. Get moving. According to Dr. Jonathan Scott, an assistant professor in the department of Military and Emergency Medicine at the Uniformed Services University one of the simplest ways to improve your heart health is to get at least 30 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity activity at least five days a week. This can ward off other risks for heart disease such as high blood pressure, high levels of “bad” cholesterol, or excess weight. “Importantly, 30 minutes of activity does not have to be done all at once,” said Dr. Scott. “You can break this up into 10 minute chucks, such as taking a 10 minute walk after meals.”

2. Make healthy food choices. Aim for a diet made up of colorful fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. Try tracking your food choices to notice your calories in (what you eat and drink) and calories out (energy used during physical activity and metabolic processes such as breathing and digestion). Dr. Scott recommends “When it comes to making healthy food choices, think about what you can add to your diet rather than what you have to cut out. It could be as simple as trying one new vegetable this week or adding 1 piece of fruit to your daily routine.

3. Know your family’s medical history. Awareness of your family’s health history can help you take preventative steps and get ahead of heart disease before it becomes an issue. Ask family members about their health and discuss your risks with your healthcare provider.

4. Get enough sleep. Adults who get less than 7 hours of sleep per night are more likely to have health problems, including high blood pressure, which is a leading risk factor for heart disease and heart attack. (Nearly 50% of those who have served in the military report not getting enough sleep, compared to 36% for civilians.)

5. Keep cholesterol under control. Your food choices can affect your cholesterol and triglycerides, which are waxy substances in the bloodstream that can clog arteries and increase your risk of heart disease. AHA suggests adults ages 20 and older get their cholesterol levels checked every 4 to 6 years.

6. Manage diabetes. High glucose levels in your blood can damage blood vessels and the nerves that control your heart. If you have diabetes, knowing your diabetes ABCs can help you take control of your blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol.

7. Monitor your mental health. Although the link between stress and heart disease isn’t clear, chronic stress might cause people to cope in unhealthy ways such as smoking, drinking too much, or overeating. Stress also might raise your blood pressure, a known risk factor for heart disease. So, make stress your ally to manage it effectively. Depression symptoms might worsen cardiovascular health too, especially if you eat unhealthy foods or live a sedentary lifestyle. Keep in mind help is available, and mental fitness could improve your heart health.

8. Quit smoking, or never start. Smoking is a major risk factor for heart disease. The good news is that your risk for heart disease greatly lowers after 1 year of quitting smoking. Think about why you smoke and why you haven’t quit, and then take steps to shake the habit once and for all.

9. Drink alcohol in moderation. The American Heart Association (AHA) suggests 1–2 drinks per day for men and 1 drink per day for women. Drinking too much alcohol raises the levels of triglycerides (a type of fat) in your blood, which can contribute to heart disease. While you might have heard some alcohol (for example, red wine) can be good for you, the research is still mixed. If you don’t already drink alcohol, AHA suggests skipping it entirely to keep your heart healthy, so get good at sticking to “no.”

10. Be aware of your blood pressure. High blood pressure or hypertension can lead to heart attacks or stroke. Get your blood pressure taken at your yearly physical and know what the numbers mean.

When it comes to heart disease, there are some risk factors you can’t change. But with healthy lifestyle choices and a Total Force Fitness approach, you can lower your risk of developing heart disease and keep your heart healthy and happy.

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